July 01, 2012

Moscow Calling

In Boris Akunin’s novel The Death of Achilles, which takes place in 1882, the great detective Erast Fandorin is attempting to obtain information crucial to solving his current case. Ever resourceful, he turns to the latest technology. He calls, or rather “telephones” (a new verb has just been born) a certain lady of mystery and pretends to be her lover and accomplice. The ploy works and our hero gets the information he needs.

The young man’s heart was racing. His idea was new and audaciously simple. Key to his plan was the fact that telephone communication, an overnight sensation among Muscovites, while extremely convenient, was technically far from perfect. It was almost always possible to figure out the general sense of what was being said, but the membrane did not convey timber and nuance. At best you could tell – and by no means always – whether it was a man or a woman’s voice on the other end, but no more. The newspapers were writing that the great inventor Mr. Bell was developing a new model that would transmit sound much better. But, as the Chinese saying goes, imperfection has a delight all its own. Erast Petrovich had not heard of anyone attempting to impersonate someone else over the telephone. Why not try?

Akunin’s plot device is historically accurate. The first telephone station did indeed appear in Moscow in 1882, and it really was set up by the International Bell Telephone Company. In May 1882, an advertisement appeared in the newspaper Русские ведомости (Russian Gazette) offering home telephone installation. The price was an astronomical 250 rubles, at a time when the typical Russian worker took home approximately two rubles a day and a pood (about 16 kilograms or 35 pounds) of rye flour cost ten kopeks. The telephone was certainly a luxury most people could not afford.

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